Virus taking devastating toll on Athens economy

COVID-19, Athens,

Source: Online Athens

Downtown Athens was eerily empty Saturday morning, a time when University of Georgia students and townies normally crowd into restaurants and specialty retail stores, keeping cash registers singing.

Storefront after storefront displayed signs like the handwritten all-caps note taped to the inside of a College Square record store: “Due to recent health concerns, WUXTRY is closed to the public until further notice. Stay Safe and Stay Healthy”

“We are closed for COVID until further notice,” read the sign at the nearby Gyro Wrap on Broad Street.

“We love you Athens,” proclaimed the iconic Georgia Theatre marquee around the corner on Lumpkin Street. “Wash Your Hands. Be Back Soon.”

No one really knows how soon stores could reopen and when their employees could go back to work — and if their businesses would even survive.

Some stores had already shut down or reduced hours even before the Athens-Clarke County Commission imposed emergency ordinances last week designed to halt the spread of the new coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease.

In an emergency meeting Monday, the commission enacted a voluntary curfew and voted to prohibit more than 10 people at a time in restaurants, bars and entertainment venues.

On Thursday, the commission approved stricter protections, ordering the public to stay at home except for essential reasons such as grocery shopping or trips to the doctor, and required “non-essential” businesses to shut their doors.

Even before the commission heeded the pleas of local physicians to act before it’s too late, Athens bars and restaurants were feeling a steep decline as state officials shut down UGA and other universities — at first for two weeks beginning March 16, then for the rest of the semester.

As more people began to heed the advice of health officials to restrict their contacts with others and restrictions tightened in Athens, Atlanta and other cities, some restaurants have tried to keep going with take-out or delivery options for customers.

But for most, that’s not working, said Georgia Restaurant Association CEO Karen Bremer.

“It is decimating the restaurants right now,” she said. “Restaurants are closing left and right.”

That was before their revenues stopped entirely as cities like Atlanta and Savannah clamped down on the coronavirus.

Tattoo parlors, barbershops and other businesses also shut down — some ordered to close as “non-essential,” some because no customers were walking in the door and some in an effort to protect the health of their workers

Hundreds of employees were out of work in downtown Athens alone by Saturday.

On College Square, Pageboy Salon manager Jamie Marie Moore spent four hours canceling appointments Wednesday morning.

“We are not going to be booking any new appointments until probably the middle of April,” Moore said, though some believe a mid-April return of business is overly optimistic.

Catherine Bovan, owner of the downtown boutique Cillies, opened her Clayton Street store the same day, then went home after an hour. No one walked in; it was pointless to stay open.

“Even when the students are gone, it’s not normally like this,” said Marvin’s Shoe Repair owner Frank Eberhart.

“I just can’t not come in,” he said. He’d been working on changing the color of a pair of orthopedic shoes to black — the owner had gotten a new job that required black shoes.

But like other business owners, he understood the drastic public health measures.

“You’ve just got to understand, if people can’t come in, they can’t come in,” Eberhart said.

Other parts of Athens’ large hospitality industry also saw frightening declines.

Hotel occupancy in Athens is usually around 60 percent to 70 percent at this time of year, but now it’s down to around 3 percent, said Athens Area Chamber of Commerce President David Bradley.

The Classic Center lost $1.2 million in bookings in just one day, said Executive Director Paul Cramer — ominous news for the center’s 360 employees.

“It’s devastating,” he said. “We are absolutely down and out right now.”

For now, The Classic Center has moved money set aside for small maintenance and repair projects usually scheduled during slow summer months, but that can’t last long, Cramer said: “I’ve got some work for them to do, but those funds are going to run out.”

“We just haven’t seen this before,” said Bradley, who did the best he could in the rapidly changing business environment to keep business owners informed on federal and state aid available to help them through the crisis.

Like Bradley, Bremer was also contacting state, local and federal officials asking for help with mortgage and rent abatement, suspension of business license fees, tax credits, low-interest loans and the like.

The Georgia Department of Labor sent out a press release last week as the COVID-19 statistics mounted in Georgia. In February, employment in the state had reached its highest level ever.

Now, economists expect to see millions of U.S. workers lose their jobs as the impact ripples out into other sectors of the economy, choking off the flow of dollars everywhere. Unemployment could reach 10 percent, some estimate, others believe higher.

The upcoming recession will also impact the tax revenues school systems and local and state governments depend on to operate.

The University System of Georgia has also taken a multi-million dollar hit, offering more than 300,000 students partial refunds on student fees, meal plan payments and housing charges.

“The once-impossible is now very likely,” tweeted Greg Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, on Friday.

“Following a 33% or 70k jump in initial claims for unemployment last week, we look for claims to soar to an unprecedented 4 million in the week ended March 21,” he wrote.